The Interpreter

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Ukraine Liveblog Day 25: Russia Preparing to Invade Ukraine

Dmitry Tymchuk of the Center of Military and Political Research crowdsources reports of Russian troops.
Dmitry Tymchuk of the Center of Military and Political Research crowdsources reports of Russian troops.

Today, all indications are that Russia is making preparations to invade Ukraine, not just Crimea but perhaps as far west as Kharkiv, or even beyond. Whether Russia will invade or not is still anyone’s guess, but it’s not just troop movements that we’re watching. Russia is, at the very least, prepared to use their ability to invade Ukraine as political leverage to annex Crimea. And there is renewed violence as pro-Ukraine protesters were attacked last night in Donetsk by pro-Russian gangs. At least one person is dead. Could this new violence be a preface for war?

Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see see our latest podcast.

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Below, we will be making regular updates throughout the day:


1944 GMT: Vice News has been filming a must-watch series on events in Ukraine. In their eighth dispatch, Robert King reports from last night’s chaos in Donetsk, a story we’ve been following since last night, where Russian protesters attacked pro-Ukraine protests, and the police struggled to stop them:


1926 GMT: Russia’s Interfax news agency is carrying a report, translated and summarized by AFP, that, according to Rosetc, a Russian state-owned military contractor, a US drone has been shot down in Crimea:

“Judging by its identification number, UAV MQ-5B belonged to the 66th American Reconnaissance Brigade, based in Bavaria,” Rostec said on its website, which also carried a picture of what it said was the captured drone.
The photograph appeared to show an apparently armed drone in flight, rather than debris.

A few key points:

  • As AFP points out, there’s no evidence that Rostec, or the Crimean defense forces, or anybody, has their hands on a drone.
  • Why is the report coming from Rostec? If a drone crashed and Crimean defense forces, not Russian soldiers, have possession of it, then why isn’t this news breaking via the Crimean government or Crimean news agencies, or even by social media, since the defense forces are supposedly paramilitaries.
  • Crimea is part of Ukraine. Nobody can make an argument that it isn’t, at least until March 16th anyway, so isn’t the government in Kiev the group that should be upset about this?
  • Those of us who cover these stories expect the Pentagon to deny the reports. But there are denials and then there are denials. This is a very strong denial:
  • Math — the Interfax report says that the drone flew from Kirovograd to Chongar, and that makes no sense:


1842 GMT: The Russian government maintains that the soldiers in Crimea are self-defense forces, but here is video reportedly taken in Kerch today that shows an entire column of artillery on the move. Where does a local militia get this kind of firepower?

Of course, journalists and residents are reporting that Russian ships are unloading equipment like this at the ferry landings in Kerch, the easternmost port on the Crimean peninsula, one that faces Russia.


1811 GMT: Russian stocks are down again today. Reuters reports that at one point they reached their lowest levels since 2009:

The rouble was also down despite a central bank decision to keep an emergency rise in interest rates in place for the coming months, with sentiment hurt by reports of lists detailing from a handful to dozens of senior officials affected by sanctions.

Share indexes fell around 5 percent in the morning but had partly recovered in the afternoon after immediate selling pressure linked to daily margin calls faded, and with investors still uncertain over the implications of Crimean developments for investors in Russia.

At 1100 GMT the MICEX stock index was down 2.2 percent at 1,191 points, while the dollar-denominated RTS index had fallen 2.6 percent to 1,023 points.

According to Bloomberg, the MICEX index has lost 18.48% of its value in the last 30 days, and the RTS is down 22.04% during that same period of time. And for comparison, the DOW is up 5.56% over that same period of time.

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1728 GMT: Hannah Allam is running some rolling updates from the State Department briefing now that the meeting with Sergei Lavrov is over. A few key themes — Lavrov wasn’t in DC to negotiate, because decisions have already been made, Russia is planning on a Ukraine that does not include Crimea, and Putin is completely unpredictable:

Our summary of that last tweet — when the conversation went nowhere, Lavrov called the Kremlin, not to see if he could negotiate further, but to see how he should spin the negotiations that had failed.


1708 GMT: The meeting between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov has not accomplished much. Lavrov summarized everything by saying that Russia has no “common vision” with the U.S., though Kerry had a slightly more upbeat assessment by saying that “differences remain”:

Kerry told reporters that after six hours of talks with Lavrov, “the foreign minister made it clear that President [Vladimir] Putin is not prepared to make any decision regarding Ukraine until after the referendum on Sunday.” He referred to a Crimean vote on independence, which Crimean officials have said would be a prelude to joining the Russian Federation.

Kerry warned that “there will be consequences if Russia does not find a way to change course.” And he said there would be “an even greater response” if Russia were to “threaten the Ukrainian people,” such as by sending forces into eastern Ukraine.

Lavrov insisted that Russia is not planning on invading Ukraine. However, looking more closely at what he said, he still never admitted that Russian troops have already invaded Crimea, and he left the door open for more action by referencing a lack of “law and order,” an essentially-fictional allegation that Russia has often repeated:

When pressed by reporters about whether Russia would annex Crimea after the vote, he said, “There are no what ifs in politics.”

“We expressed our deep concern over the fact that necessary measures are not being taken to ensure law and order,” he said. “Radicals are still staging armed provocations, violent provocations.”

That was not happening in Crimea, he said, because self-defense forces — which reporters have observed are actually Russian troops — have preserved order.

In other words, Russia has not invaded, but the troops that are in control of Crimea have been helpful, so expect to see more of those (except they really are Russian troops), and if the situation does not normalize (Russia has invented most of the violence) Russia could get even more involved.

So it sounds like Russia may have plans to invade Ukraine after all.

Here’s Washington Post’s latest roundup:


1606 GMT: The Russian news agency Interfax reports that a prominent Jewish rabbi was beaten and stabbed in Kiev today. If we find more details we’ll report them.


1600 GMT: Reuters reports that 1 person was killed, 29 were injured, and 4 were hospitalized after last night’s violence in Donetsk. The Russian Foreign Ministry says that pro-Ukrainian thugs were behind the attack, but as we’ve pointed out, there is significant evidence to the contrary (jump to entry 1325).

Now the governor of Donetsk says that the Russian statement is a falsehood:

“Sadly, we note that there were, according to police, a lot of people concentrated there who were not from Ukraine,” Serhiy Taruta told journalists in an oblique reference to Russia.

Taruta also took exception to a Russian foreign ministry statement which said the clashes on Thursday night showed the Ukrainians had lost control of the situation and Russia reserved the right to protect its compatriots in eastern Ukraine.

“The statement by the (Russian) foreign ministry is not objective and distorts the real situation,” said Taruta, a steel tycoon and one of several oligarchs appointed by Ukraine’s new rulers to take control of possibly restive regions.


1550 GMT: While Russian troops and heavy equipment continue to flock to the borders with Ukraine, more Russian heavy equipment and troops continue to appear in Crimea. This photo, posted by a news organization in Kerch, reportedly shows a piece of Russian artillery not far from the ferry landings in east Crimea:

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Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has posted a gallery with 15 pictures of Russian vehicles on the move across Russia. Here are two reportedly taken in Rostov-on-Don (map), where, interestingly enough, ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych is staying:

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1535 GMT: US Secretary of state John Kerry has spent the day meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

They played football, and the Russian government sent this intriguing tweet:

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And there was this picture:

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But did anything get done? The West’s goal was to get Russia to stop the backing of a referendum, to be held on Sunday, which could lead to the annexation of Crimea. The outlook at the start of the meeting was pretty grim:

After holding separate talks with Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov, U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague inserted a note of caution into the day’s diplomatic talks, calling any breakthrough a “formidable” task, since there is no sign of Russia backing down.

Mr. Hague said that without any signs of progress on halting the Russia’s apparent annexation of the Crimea, then the European Union and the U.K. would advance with their plans to slap travel bans and asset freezes on key Russian officials. Those discussions are set to take place Monday at a meeting of European foreign ministers, he said.

“They give every indication, of course, of going ahead with the referendum on Sunday,” Mr. Hague said. “How everyone reacts to that, how Russia regards that, is a very important component.”

With Russian troops continuing to build up near the border with Ukraine, it’s not clear if there is any common ground between Moscow and Washington on this issue.


1503 GMT: Belarus, a historical ally of Russia’s has begun full-scale military drills of its airforce, ground forces, and anti-aircraft defenses, Interfax reports. Of course, the mobilization is being described as a “readiness check,” but as every country holding drills is saying that, does anybody really believe it?


1445 GMT: Russia now has a massive force of tanks, troops, artillery, aircraft, and naval forces in position to potentially invade mainland Ukraine from Crimea in the south, but also from positions east and north of Ukraine. However, today reports are pouring in from across Russia of even more firepower on the move:

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Saratov is east of Ukraine (map):

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Omsk is a long way from Ukraine (map), so mobilization of armor and troops there could be a sign that this is not just a drill. Certainly, with all the forces Russia does not need additional forces in the west if its goal is only to defend the border:

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1411 GMT: This week Russia granted Ukraine permission to fly recon missions over its borders, missions that, by treaty, Ukraine is allowed to fly. However, yesterday a Ukrainian border patrol aircraft was shot at, reportedly by a Russian APC, for the second time in a week. NATO has announced that it will be flying recon flights from Poland and Romania, and now it seems that it is conducting those flights:

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The Ukrainian airforce appears to be stepping up its own patrols, at least near the capital, Kiev:

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1405 GMT: We are running a separate liveblog where we are covering Russia’s crackdown on independent media outlets. And the catalyst for this new wave of censorship has been how media outlets and opposition leaders have covered the Ukraine crisis, which has sparked concerns that Russia is trying to control the media in advance of a possible invasion of Ukraine.

That fact has not escaped Ukrainian media, which is under attack in Russian-controlled Crimea:


1354 GMT: Last night’s violence in Donetsk was well-documented. There were both citizen journalists and well-respected traditional ones. Yet conspiracy theories abound, a testament to how divided Ukrainian society is at this point — and one could easily argue that it is Russia’s alternate explanations of reality that are driving the divide:


1346 GMT: The G7 have released the following statement, addressed to Russia about Crimea:

We, the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission, call on the Russian Federation to cease all efforts to change the status of Crimea contrary to Ukrainian law and in violation of international law. We call on the Russian Federation to immediately halt actions supporting a referendum on the territory of Crimea regarding its status, in direct violation of the Constitution of Ukraine.

Any such referendum would have no legal effect. Given the lack of adequate preparation and the intimidating presence of Russian troops, it would also be a deeply flawed process which would have no moral force. For all these reasons, we would not recognize the outcome.

Russian annexation of Crimea would be a clear violation of the United Nations Charter; Russia’s commitments under the Helsinki Final Act; its obligations to Ukraine under its 1997 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership; the Russia-Ukraine 1997 basing agreement; and its commitments in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. In addition to its impact on the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea could have grave implications for the legal order that protects the unity and sovereignty of all states. Should the Russian Federation take such a step, we will take further action, individually and collectively.

We call on the Russian Federation to de-escalate the conflict in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine immediately, withdraw its forces back to their pre-crisis numbers and garrisons, begin direct discussions with the Government of Ukraine, and avail itself of international mediation and observation offers to address any legitimate concerns it may have. We, the leaders of the G-7, urge Russia to join us in working together through diplomatic processes to resolve the current crisis and support progress for a sovereign independent, inclusive and united Ukraine. We also remind the Russian Federation of our decision to suspend participation in any activities related to preparation of a G-8 Sochi meeting until it changes course and the environment comes back to where the G-8 is able to have a meaningful discussion.


1325 GMT: Will Russia use renewed violence in Ukraine to justify invasion?

In the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, pro-Russian groups attacked pro-Ukraine protesters last night, killing at least one person. The video shows Russians with the accents of those from the Russian Federation, not Ukraine, attacking a group of pro-EuroMaidan activists. They shout “Russia! Russia!” and “Where is your Ukraine?!” Using one of the worst insults in the region, they cry “Pederasts! Pederasts!” and then “On your knees! On your knees!” in a constant chant.

The EuroMaidan activists link arms in a tight circle and try to dodge flash grenades and mace spray, then riot police encircle them with arms linked, while a policeman radios a report that 10 people have been injured. The EuroMaidan demonstrators try to take cover near a bus that is already packed with people.

Somehow, the Russian rioters get around the riot police cordon, and start cracking heads with iron rods or bats.

The video is consistent with some written reports now being published on social media, such as that of Maksim Goryunov, who said that demonstrators tried to take cover by buses under a hail of stones, and then tried to get into the bus, where pavement stones came hurling through the windows and some kind of gas was sprayed on people (mace?). The Interpreter has translated an excerpt here:

“For the first time in my life I breathe gas — everyone was coughing, choking, and trying to get out. There was NOWHERE to run. You get out — they tear you apart, if you stay, you choke. We open the door — they “greet” us. I get a kick to the head — my luck, to the side, although a concussion still. We run behind the bus and form a tight circle of about 30 people in a bunch. All around, they shout ‘on your knees!’ and some of us are on our knees anyway; in order to reduce the area of attack, we crouched on our heels, covering our heads with our hands. I’m afraid of letting a blow or a stone through, I realize that if I cut out, they could crush us. The police can barely hold back the enraged crowd, they themselves do not want to suffer retaliation.

They constantly try to drag us out of the circle so it is more convenient to beat us — we hold tight to each other. I look at the police — there is no help there, I see that a window toward Ilyich Avenue has opened up and I make a fast lunge through (in fact I can barely move my legs, running from gangsters in my own city!), I am not running alone, several others have broken through.”

Mike Giglio of Buzzfeed has also reported from the scene; a 22-yearpold man died of knife wounds and 17 others sought medical care.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has issued a statement today

A translation by The Interpreter follows:

On 13 March in Donetsk tragic events occurred, blood was shed. Right-radical gangs, armed with traumatic weapons and bats, which had assembled the evening before in the city from other regions of the country, attacked peaceful demonstrations who had come to the streets of the city to express their attitude to the destruction position of people calling themselves the Ukrainian government.

We have repeatedly stated that those who have come to power in Kiev must disarm the fighters, guarantee the security of the population and the lawful right of people to hold rallies. Unfortunately, as events in Ukraine have shown, that is not happening, and the Kiev authorities are not controlling the situation in the country.

Russia is aware of its responsibility for the life of its compatriots and fellow citizens in Ukraine and reserves the right to take people under protection.

The statement seems to be directly at odds with reports from journalists and eyewitnesses as well as videos filmed in Donetsk last night (see below) which show Russian nationalists, some from Russia and some locals, armed with bats and mace, attacking unarmed supporters of EuroMaidan in Donetsk. One supporter of EuroMaidan was killed and dozens were wounded.

The statement is also seen by some as essentially a justification for a declaration of war, although it may also refer to the issuing of Russian passports.

What is Russia’s endgame? Are they really willing to invade all of Ukraine? They are certainly making preparations to do so, perhaps to seize control and annex more than Crimea, perhaps to re-install Yanukovych, but at the very least to use their military might as leverage to ensure the successful annexation of Crimea.